The popularity and taste for a new and original fare choice has made its way onto the Rensselaer campus. In an effort to please the palates of socially conscious students, faculty, staff, and members of the surrounding community, the Terra Cafe is dishing up a weekly selection of local and organic meals, desserts, and beverages every Wednesday afternoon in the Russell Sage Dining Hall.
The brainchild of Ella Braco, a native of Binghamton, N.Y., the student-run cafe had a test run last spring in Mother’s Wine Emporium in the Rensselaer Union with support from EcoLogic, one of the Rensselaer Union environmental clubs. Braco and several students worked with Jackie Baldwin, culinary director with Sodexho Campus Services, to develop a menu for the cafe.
“I have always been interested in the fresh taste of locally grown and organic foods, and I wanted other students and members of the campus community to have a similar experience,” says Braco.
Braco is a junior majoring in Design, Innovation, and Society, a program that prepares students to design new products, services, and media while considering the social needs and environmental concerns of the 21st century. Following the success of the initial launch, she used the idea as part of a class project to develop a business plan in the Product, Design, and Innovation course.
“Since I was really little, I always wanted to open a cafe,” says Braco. “The idea of establishing a cafe on campus seemed like a good opportunity to bring students, faculty, and staff together in a more social setting outside of the classroom.” There’s a lot of planning involved. Prior to this year’s debut in the Russell Sage Dining Hall, Braco and the Terra Cafe Club members developed a business plan, and discussed aspects related to the business structure, branding, marketing, and education, among others. The 15 members meet on a weekly basis and also staff the cafe on Wednesdays. In addition, Braco and Baldwin meet every Thursday to discuss the previous day’s activities and meal planning and preparation for the following week.
“People are becoming more health-conscious consumers who favor foods without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or hormones,” says Baldwin. “I shop locally and I have been doing so for years. Local farms need community support to stay in business, and this effort also helps to eliminate the use of fossil fuels which over time have an impact on the environment.”
According to the Organic Trade Association, the allure and taste for organic products is on the rise with food sales totaling $10.4 billion. Over the last few years, the industry has seen a 17 to 20 percent growth.
“There are challenges that we encounter in this process. We can’t consistently offer the same meal, as supply does not equal demand,” says Baldwin. “We have to use the combination of local and organic foods based on the growing seasons and the selection of meats, produce, fruits, and vegetables that are available.”
Baldwin recalled the first day the cafe opened and all meal products had to come from within 100 miles of the Capital Region. She needed oil to prepare part of the meal, and since oil is a product that does not come from the area, she used heavy cream from Meadowbrook Dairy Farm, churned it into butter, and then clarified it a process that simply melts butter so the water evaporates from it and the milk solids separate from the fat.
A far cry from the usual grab-and-go lunch, the Terra Cafe offers a weekly menu that features a meat option, vegetarian option, dessert, and beverage all at a cost of $5. A recent week’s menu featured whole wheat penne with organic meatballs or roasted vegetables, Prinzo’s garlic bread, mixed greens with organic dressing, a mango raspberry cobbler, and a choice of Fair trade organic coffee or Divinitea Pomegranate ice tea.
The Terra Cafe captures the essence of a family-style atmosphere with diners sitting together at various tables covered with burgundy cloths and floral centerpieces. So far, more than 60 members of the campus community have eaten at the cafe on a regular basis. The cafe also features live entertainment that is organized by Alessandro Gerbini, a native of Delmar who is majoring in science and technology studies, and an education table staffed by organizations involved in local and organic foods businesses.
“In this process, I am learning to become a leader and trust that others share my vision,” says Braco. “I think that the students involved are having a lot of fun because we are able to take ownership of the cafe. We know that this is a work in progress that we will pass onto the next generation of students.”
Future plans may include expanding the cafe’s days of operation. For now, heading into the fall season, the shift will focus on more organic foods that may come from local farmers or items shipped from other producers with special meals that feature squash, apples, and pears.
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